To be his mas­ter’s

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Maria Tu­markin

GHOST­WRIT­ING is not new,’’ writes Jen­nie Erdal in Ghost­ing: A Dou­ble Life . It might al­most qual­ify as the old­est pro­fes­sion if pros­ti­tu­tion had not laid prior claim.’’ For 15 years Erdal, a Scot­tish lin­guist and trans­la­tor spe­cial­is­ing in Rus­sian, was the hand that penned Lon­don’s Quar­tet Books pub­lisher Naim At­tal­lah’s con­sid­er­able body of lit­er­ary work, ev­ery­thing from let­ters and re­views to a cou­ple of crit­i­cally ac­claimed nov­els, in which the dash­ing main pro­tag­o­nist was closely mod­elled on At­tal­lah’s rather gen­er­ous im­age of him­self.

When Erdal fi­nally wrote a book un­der her own name re­veal­ing with con­sid­er­able el­e­gance, depth and hu­mour this part sym­bi­otic, part par­a­sitic’’ re­la­tion­ship with her fa­mous longterm em­ployer, Erdal’s old univer­sity pro­fes­sor, a dis­tin­guished aca­demic, told her for­mer stu­dent she was no bet­ter than a com­mon whore’’. Erdal thought that the two pro­fes­sions had a lot in com­mon, both in­hab­it­ing the murky un­der­worlds of se­crecy, van­ity and shame.

Ghost­ing makes it clear that Erdal’s ghost­writ­ing ca­reer in­volved much more than sim­ply turn­ing lit­er­ary tricks. It was thrilling, em­pow­er­ing, cre­atively chal­leng­ing and, in­stead of mak­ing her a stranger to her own voice, turned her into an un­ques­tion­ably good writer. Mean­while she avoided ques­tions from the curious about her line of work — ed­i­tor? re­searcher? — set­tling, with some per­verse en­joy­ment, on house­wife.

The name­less pro­tag­o­nist of Robert Har­ris’s new thriller The Ghost is not quite in Erdal’s league, at least not when we first meet him. A pro­fes­sional ghost­writer, he spe­cialises in turn­ing the messy and in­su­lar lives of mi­nor celebri­ties into read­able and com­pelling mem­oirs. He is weary and cyn­i­cal, as you would ex­pect, but the man is no hack. There is real crafts­man­ship to what good ghost­writ­ers do, he tells us, ex­tract­ing a life story out of their sub­jects and then giv­ing it a rhythm, a di­rec­tion, a shape.

A suc­cess­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion, he ar­gues, re­quires a trans­for­ma­tion rather than mere spin.

By the end of the process, I am more them than they are. I rather en­joy this process, to be hon­est: the brief free­dom of be­ing some­one else.’’ The re­la­tion­ship is not of sub­servience but of fu­sion, the ghost and the ghosted be­com­ing one. Quite lit­er­ally so. For Har­ris’s char­ac­ter, mi casa es tu casa .

I was shocked my­self,’’ he re­calls, the first time I heard one of my clients on television weep­ily de­scrib­ing a poignant mo­ment from his past which was ac­tu­ally from my past.’’

The movers and shakers of this world are rarely the re­flec­tive ones. That’s why they need ghosts: to flesh them out.’’ The dis­em­bod­ied ghosts are ac­tu­ally in the busi­ness of giv­ing flesh to their clients’ lives.

For Har­ris’s pro­tag­o­nist, ghost­writ­ers are the phan­tom op­er­a­tives who keep pub­lish­ing go­ing, like the un­seen work­ers be­neath Walt Dis­ney World’’. When he is of­fered a chance to ghost the mem­oirs of Bri­tain’s for­mer prime min­is­ter Adam Lang, he is ap­pre­hen­sive but says yes any­way, sens­ing that he is about to be­come an A- list ghost.

With the pub­li­ca­tion of The Ghost , Bri­tish me­dia went wild with spec­u­la­tion that Lang is Tony Blair and the book a trial by thriller’’ of the man Har­ris once pub­licly and em­phat­i­cally de­clared to be Bri­tain’s great white hope.

Har­ris is a well- known po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and jour­nal­ist whose close re­la­tion­ship with Blair led to him be­ing cho­sen as the main chron­i­cler of the for­mer leader’s tri­umphant as­cent into gov­ern­ment. His dis­en­chant­ment with Blair’s gov­ern­ment is equally well known, as is the fact that it was the war in Iraq and Bri­tain’s in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with the US that prompted it. It was Har­ris, af­ter all, who penned those fa­mous words of dam­na­tion: There is some­thing truly loath­some about the mod­ern Labour Party.’’

And in­deed it is not much of a stretch to see Blair in the young, fit and tele­genic Lang, whose ge­nius is to re­fresh and el­e­vate the cliches of pol­i­tics by the sheer force of his per­for­mance’’. When an­other ter­ror­ist at­tack puts Lon­don in dis­ar­ray, Lang, of course, is in­stan­ta­neously in front of a cam­era. It was like watch­ing some great ac­tor in the last phase of his ca­reer, emo­tion­ally over­spent, with noth­ing left to draw on but tech­nique.’’

A few pages into the book, Lang is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by the In­ter­na­tional War Crimes Tri­bunal in The Hague for hand­ing over to the CIA for tor­ture four Bri­tish ter­ror­ist sus­pects.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bri­tain and the US is not merely the po­lit­i­cal back­drop but the heart of The Ghost . Name me one de­ci­sion that Adam Lang took as prime min­is­ter that wasn’t in the in­ter­ests of the USA,’’ says one char­ac­ter.

Har­ris’s pro­tag­o­nist is not the fic­tional for­mer PM’s first ghost­writer. His pre­de­ces­sor, McAra,

the sort of un­ap­peal­ing in­ad­e­quate that is con­gen­i­tally drawn to pol­i­tics’’, is drowned in what seems like an ac­ci­dent. Our anony­mous hero holds him in con­tempt. You’ll find a McAra in any coun­try, in any sys­tem, stand­ing be­hind any leader with a po­lit­i­cal ma­chine to op­er­ate: a greasy en­gi­neer in the boiler room of

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